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WASHINGTON, DC -- A bipartisan group of United States Senators, led by Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and John Boozman (R-AR), have sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Department of Justice to address the issue of prescription drug abuse among our nation's servicemembers and veterans by allowing the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish prescription drug take-back programs in coordination with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). 

A rule proposed by the DEA under the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010 does not allow DoD and VA to participate in the DEA's drug-take back efforts because it does not take into account the unique conditions at DoD and VA facilities.  Under current law, only the DEA has the authority to designate authorized collectors of controlled substances through drug-take back programs for the purpose of safe disposal.

The number of reported suicide deaths among servicemembers reached 349 in 2012.  Moreover, according to data collected by the Department of Veterans Affairs from 21 states, 22 veterans take their own lives each day. 

In a January 2012 report, "Army 2020: Generating Health and Discipline in the Force," the Army found that 29 percent of suicides involved individuals with a known history of psychotropic medication use, including anti-depressants, and pain medicine, such as opioids.  The report recommended the establishment of a military drug take-back program to help combat prescription drug misuse or abuse in the ranks. 

"The suicide rate among our active duty servicemembers and our veterans is both deeply disturbing and absolutely unacceptable," Senator Collins said.  "The data suggest that prescription drug abuse is a salient factor in many of these cases.  By simply giving our servicemembers and veterans access to facilities where they can dispose of prescriptions that are no longer needed, we can help save lives." 

"We must do everything we can to stop the abuse of prescription drugs by offering safe and accessible disposal options for our service members, veterans, and their families," Senator Boxer said.

"A drug take-back program would help prevent veterans and servicemembers facing mental health challenges from falling victim to substance abuse and suicide by giving them the opportunity to more easily dispose of unused and unwanted prescription drugs at VA and DOD health facilities," Senator Blumenthal said. "There is substantial evidence prescription drug use and abuse is a major contributing factor to military and veteran suicides, and this program would address that problem head on. Veterans should be able to dispose of their prescriptions at the facilities that prescribed them in the first place."

"The correlation between prescription drug abuse and suicide among our servicemembers and veterans is clear, which is why this proposal is a common sense step in the right direction," Senator Boozman said.  "Combined with other mental health treatment and health care, providing a responsible way to dispose of prescription drugs for servicemembers and veterans will help many of our men and women who have served in uniform break the cycle of addiction and reduce risk of becoming addicted to prescription drugs."

In June, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would direct Attorney General Holder to establish drug take-back programs in coordination with DoD and VA. 

Below is the full text of the letter: 

 

Dear Attorney General Holder:

We write regarding the proposed rule issued by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on December 21, 2012, to implement the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-273). We are concerned that the proposed rule significantly limits the ability of the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Veterans Affairs (VA) to fully participate in efforts to collect and dispose of unused prescription drugs, and urge you to ensure that the final rule effectively addresses these deficiencies.

Unfortunately, DEA's proposed rule-which would expand the options available for the safe and effective collection and disposal of unwanted and unnecessary prescription drugs-does not adequately address the unique conditions at DoD and VA. For example, DoD and VA pharmacies would not be eligible to operate mail-back programs or maintain collection receptacles because these pharmacies are registered as hospitals/clinics and only registered retail pharmacies would be eligible to implement these programs under the proposed rule.

It is essential that DoD and VA be allowed to fully and meaningfully participate in DEA's drug take-back efforts in order to combat the challenge posed by prescription drug misuse and abuse, and in turn, the continuing crisis of military and veteran suicides. In 2012, the military experienced a record-high 349 military suicides-more than the total number of service members who lost their lives in combat in Afghanistan during the same period of time. Over the first five months of this year, DoD has recorded 161 suicides. Moreover, according to a 2012 VA Suicide Data Report, an estimated 22 veterans lose their lives to suicide each day.

There is substantial evidence that prescription drug use and abuse is a major contributing factor to military and veteran suicides. In January 2012, the Army reported that 29 percent of suicides involved individuals with a known history of psychotropic medication use. In addition, the Center for a New American Security released a report in October 2011 that found that there is an excess of prescription medication in the military community. Both reports recommend that DEA grant DoD the authority to accept and dispose of prescription medications from service members. At a time when the suicide rate is at a record high, we must make it easier for military personnel and veterans to dispose of unwanted or unused prescription drugs voluntarily.

Senior DoD and VA officials have been vocal about the need for their departments to have the authority to conduct drug take-back programs. In testimony before the Military Construction and Veterans' Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, VA Secretary Shinseki stated that VA would benefit from having its pharmacies authorized to collect controlled substances. In addition, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson wrote to the DEA Administrator on February 13, 2013, expressing his concern that DEA's proposed rule will "limit DoD's ability to accept unused patient medications in a routine setting and reduce the potential effectiveness of efforts to eliminate opportunities for medication misuse, abuse, and tragic adverse events." We could not agree more.

We understand the DEA's concerns regarding the safety, security and accountability of prescription drug take-back programs. Nevertheless, we are confident that DoD and VA can implement these programs with the appropriate safeguards that address these concerns. As such, we urge you to ensure that the DEA's final rule includes the necessary modifications to allow DoD and VA to fully support efforts to safely dispose of prescription drugs and combat the scourge of suicide that robs so many families of their loved ones.

Thank you for your attention to this important request. We look forward to your prompt response.